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For the last few decades, much of HBO’s bread and butter has been in the exploration of stories about toxic masculinity. The Sopranos became one of the greatest shows in the history of its medium by using the allure of manliness to crash wannabe mobster’s ships against the rocks. Game of Thrones, at its best, often concerned eking out survival in a world driven by ego-stroking power plays. With The Righteous Gemstones, Danny McBride is currently starring in his third beautiful show about men troubled by their inability to control the world. But in this genre, HBO’s Oz serves as a sort of Patient Zero.
Pre-dating the “Golden Age” of HBO and series like Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire, Oz concerns the goings-on of a section of a maximum security prison nicknamed the “Emerald City” or “Oz.” It is an experimental zone, one managed with the idea of rehabilitation and cohabitation among various groups, but this goal rarely works out in the slightest. Instead, Oz frequently descends into a racial and sexual nightmare, with status built around basic dick-swinging brutality. The fear of assault and rape are constant and very well-founded.
Like many of the aforementioned series, Oz delights in a robust ensemble cast. But unlike them, there is no Tony Soprano or Al Swearegen to anchor it with wide discourse about the difference between antiheroism and villainy. The closest Oz has to a poster child, and often through sheer force of talent and charisma, is Vernon Schillinger, the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, played with sneering cruelty by J.K. Simmons. Simmons’ brand of domineering, hands-on-hips force that he’d later unleash in films like Whiplash is also in full effect in Oz, and the series is quick to fall in love with his presence. He could very easily be one-note, but Simmons also imbues him with deep paranoia befitting his white supremacist values.
On the other side is Tobias Beecher, played with a kind of burgeoning wildness by Lee Tergesen. Beecher is tricked and then bullied and raped by Schillinger upon arriving in Oz, and as his ties to the outside world and wife and kids are frayed and eventually destroyed, his integration into the community of Oz increases. He eventually manages to even the odds with Schillinger, and their rivalry becomes the consistent dramatic backbone of the show. Meanwhile, Beecher’s relationship with Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni), another Brotherhood member, rises to the forefront. What could easily be the fodder of juvenile “gay in prison” jokes becomes something that’s actually emotionally poignant, as the two discover that they need one another.
These kinds of personal connections and disconnections are the strongest aspect of Oz. Unlike the meticulous plotting of TV series to come, Oz plays fast and loose with its narratives, and the tone of the show jumps wildly between them. For example, after a prison guard who’s secretly part of the Brotherhood allows Beecher to be seriously hurt by them, Beecher gains his revenge by… allowing his fingernails to grow really long and slashing the guard to death like he’s Wolverine. Then we see the prison guard’s face, with deep, gruesome wounds—a whiplash of an approach that threatens to undermine the entire storyline.
Brutality is unrelenting throughout the series. In one storyline, a new inmate (who becomes mentally handicapped after a blow to the head) is gang-raped by the Brotherhood upon entrance to Oz. He then proves to be a highly capable boxer in a prison tournament, only to be put to death in one of the series’ most agonizingly miserable sequences. In another, a Brotherhood member, after repeatedly taunting the prison dentist, has his gums replaced by a black man’s during surgery (His former friends refer to them as “ghetto gums.”) He attempts to drug himself and cut them out of his own mouth, and he later allows himself to be raped in order to pass on HIV to another inmate. Oh, and he also tricks his cellmate into killing himself through erotic asphyxiation after being ruthlessly sodomized by him over and over again.
This atmosphere of constant sexual violence pervades even as plot lines twist and sometimes implode on themselves, and the term “prag” is frequently used for those under the thumb of someone powerful (those who are employed as the sexual plaything of a group in exchange for protection from others). The ability to escape from it is the closest thing to prestige that one has in Oz, making for a show that is hopeless on an almost insurmountable level. The inability to curb these assaults (along with murder and rampant drug addiction) by the top staff of the prison renders them as little more than Don Quixotes of the penal system. Even Terry Kinney’s Tim McManus, who develops the Emerald City program, is often left devising rules and punishment in futility.
Thus, it’s hard to recommend Oz to fans of later HBO shows, even when it shares so many of their roots. The Sopranos would offer its characters little chances of escape (though they’d often refuse it anyway), and something like Deadwood is deeply humane and optimistic about the human condition even when cursing through barbarity. Oz, on the other hand, treats its titular prison system with undeniable nihilism—young men are shuffled through its system to die at the hands of each other or the lackluster forces that organize it. Evading it works in a revolving door manner, whether you leave and fail a re-assimilation into society and are thrown back into Oz, or you lose any respect that you’ve gained among the other prisoners to become their “prag” and their prey.
Oz would last for six seasons on HBO, with its final episode seeing the surviving prisoners evacuated from the prison thanks to an Anthrax-esque scare, and an inmate stabbing another to death in a production of Macbeth (As always, Oz gonna Oz.) In the end, though, the cells remain empty and silent, indicating that there is no path to redemption between its walls. Whatever whispers of enlightenment that McManus wished to glean or impart are inevitably undone by the basic rules of prison. There is no hope and no chance of betterment. The only way to change it is to abandon it entirely.
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Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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